Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dolce far niente

Elizabeth Zelvin

“It is sweet to do nothing.” It’s an old Italian expression, first used in 1814, according to Merriam-Webster Online, and it describes a state of being that is almost impossible to achieve in the 21st century. The new technology has eliminated all the little pockets of time we used to spend with our internal Pause button on, all the periods of waiting that we could devote to daydreaming or in “carefree idleness,” as dolce far niente is frequently defined.

Remember when you had to get somewhere before you could talk to anyone? The ubiquitous cell phone has eliminated that period of grace. Being alone with our thoughts has gone out of style. If I choose not to conduct my personal life or business on the street or the bus, you’ll gladly make me privy to yours.

If you’re a writer or an editor, remember “turn-around time”? At every stage, manuscripts and then various kinds of proofs were marked by hand and sent by mail, while you got a breather waiting for them to arrive, and the publisher didn’t expect them back for at least a week or two. Today, publishers and even agents will send work that needs my attention by email on a Friday afternoon and want it back immediately for posting to the Web on Monday. And woe betide me if I have plans for the weekend!

How much time do you have to read these days? Is it less than it used to be? And to what extent can you do it without a guilty feeling that you’re supposed to be doing something more productive? If I pick up a book before halfway through the evening, I may start out assuring myself that reading is a justifiable pleasure, or even better, an aspect of my work. But before I know it, it’s bedtime, and I find myself thinking, “I got nothing done.”

I’m a believer in E.M. Forster’s famous motto, “Only connect.” If I didn’t treasure the human capacity for connection, if I weren’t fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of human relationships, I wouldn’t be a writer, and I certainly wouldn’t be a shrink. I believe that the communication that goes on in cyberspace broadens the range of how people connect with each other. For me, online connections have allowed me to help clients all over the world and given me the support network I needed to achieve my lifelong dream of being a novelist. To be engaged, online or otherwise, is an essential part of human experience. But to engage online is to do, not to be, and certainly not to do nothing.

I spent a couple of idyllic afternoons in Central Park with a book this spring. The weather was glorious, the magnolias in full bloom, the grass studded with daffodils. All around me, fellow New Yorkers were sitting or lying in the grass, mostly reading or talking quietly, some snoozing, others epitomizing dolce far niente by simply sitting there, taking in the beauty of the day.

How did I manage to give myself permission to come so close to carefree idleness? Well, I’m currently reading entries in a book competition, as authors are asked to do from time to time, so it could be classed as homework, not mere pleasure. And besides, I was obeying my maternal introject (that’s your mother’s voice in your head, long after she’s not around any more). My mother, a high achiever and a “human doing” if I ever met one, used to say, “It’s a gorgeous day—you should be outdoors!”

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